"China, while rising alongside India, has done so less responsibly, at times undermining the international rules-based order," the top US diplomat said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies about US-India ties.
"China's provocative actions in the South China Sea directly challenge the international law and norms that the United States and India both stand for," Tillerson continued. While the US wants a constructive relationship with China, he said, "we will not shrink from China's challenges to the rules-based order, and where China subverts the sovereignty of neighboring countries and disadvantages the US and our friends."
Tillerson made the remarks at a time he is attempting to lead a concerted diplomatic push to have Beijing apply greater pressure on North Korea, which defiantly continues its pursuit of nuclear weapons
and the means to target them at US territory.
Tillerson's speech, which also touched on Myanmar
, comes just three weeks before President Donald Trump makes his first official trip to China. And it coincides with China's nineteenth party congress -- a massive gathering of Communist Party members to choose who will lead the country for the next five years.
China's President Xi Jinping, who is expected to consolidate his hold on power at the meeting
, used the occasion to declare that China should "take center stage in the world," and that its brand of socialism offers "a new choice for other countries." He added that, "no one should expect China to swallow anything that undermines its interests."
Tillerson pointedly criticized China's model of economic development in smaller countries, announcing that the US is talking to other countries about offering an alternative to Beijing's lending practices which, he said, saddle nations with "enormous levels of debt."
And he laid out a vision of an "Indo Pacific" order stretching from the US west coast to India that would be underpinned by the US and its allies, a move that could be seen in Beijing as an attempt at containment or as a challenge in a region that China sees as falling under its sphere of influence.
Asked about Tillerson's highly critical comments, a senior State Department official said that "China is obviously an audience of the speech" and added that the US hopes "all countries of the Indo Pacific region will take to heart" Tillerson's message.
That official stressed that Tillerson "did say that we obviously want constructive relations with China. The secretary is in regular contact with Chinese leadership. But we are not going to shrink or ignore China's challenges to the rules based order."
Tillerson also made clear the US will come after some of China's development business in the Asia Pacific and beyond. The US should collaborate with India to create a region of "peace, stability, and growing prosperity -- so that it does not become a region of disorder, conflict, and predatory economics," he said.
China, he said, uses funding mechanisms with countries that "result in saddling them with enormous levels of debt. They don't often create the jobs," because foreign workers are brought in.
In the end, the result is "not a structure that supports the future growth of these countries," the top US diplomat
said. "It's time to expand transparent, high standard regional lending mechanisms -- tools that will actually help nations instead of saddling them with mounting debt," he added.
And Tillerson laid out the administration's vision for strengthening the architecture that will ensure "this Indo Pacific free and open policy that we have, and how do we pin that in the proper places with our strongest, most important allies, how do we strengthen those in this multiparty arrangement."
He said India, "this very significant and important democracy, pins one side of that map; Japan, another very important and strong democracy that we have very strong security relationships with, pinning this side of the map."
Australia covers the South Pacific, while the US defines the region at its eastern edge.
Tillerson said that the US is "going to have important relationships with China." But he added the caveat that "we'll never have the same relationship with China, a non-democratic society, that we can have with a major democracy."